Gabe Willis will be forever thankful to Instagram. His small start-up company, STRGHT Skateboards, which started on a whim while Willis was still in college, got a big bump about 6 months after the 22-year-old craftsman began making boards at his family’s engraving company in Oceanside, California.
“I started an Instagram page and people started freaking out about the boards, and how deep the etching was,” explains Willis about the intricately carved wooden skateboards he makes. “We had a couple thousand followers on Instagram, and we’d get really good feedback, but people weren’t buying them because they were so expensive. But then Instagram actually did a feature on us at the beginning of summer; Josh Riedel from Instagram called me up and said, ‘Hey we want to feature you.’ I thought he just meant on their blog, but they actually call their Instagram page their blog. He let me know the day they were going live with it, and was like, ‘get ready to get some crazy traffic to your site,” because they have like 30 million followers. After that, it just went nuts. We got something like 30,000 followers in a night, and orders started coming through.”
With the surge in interest, the small company was able to pick up 40 retailers over the last six months, and lower its production costs, making the product more accessible. The company also connected with a local wood sourcing company in San Diego, making the boards “100% Made in the USA.” Willis, who has four other dedicated employees working on the project, ended up forgoing school to begin making the boards full time. Today, the company is steadily working to fulfill orders for shops like Hobie, Republic Of California, and most recently Urban Outfitters.
We caught up with STRGHT President and Founder Willis to hear more about how the unique boards are made, what inspired him to pursue starting his own business, and where he sees things headed in the near future for STRGHT.
When did you start working with Cali Bamboo in SD, and how did you discover them as a good source for making these type of boards?
October of 2012 we connected with Cali Bamboo after we had gone through a few different suppliers because we were really focused on achieving a particular aesthetic.
Cali Bamboo provided us with the proper thickness and beautiful vertical laminate between the top and bottom ply so we could both portray an old school skate deck and provide the desired look while not compromising on strength.
The thicker than normal deck is an ode to the earliest days of skating when it was just a plank of wood and wheels but we also wanted to exhibit the unique hand carved artwork on the top of the deck to separate our product from others and in order to do that properly we felt we needed to go deeper into the surface of the deck. It's a cool way to show the progression of skating.
Can you describe in more detail the process of carving the boards and what the equipment is like? This is proprietary machinery that your family developed right?
Yes, this is all proprietary machinery developed by my family’s engraving company.
We are giving the board a tattoo. It's a complex detailed process but at the core basically you have a pressure pot full of sand and air, a foot pedal that controls your pressure, a hose, and a nozzle that the sand shoots out of at an aggressive speed. What makes it complex but extremely fun and interesting is we do this all with our hands. Every board comes out with its own unique characteristics, its personal tattoo.
Take a look through the gallery below to get a feel for how the finished product looks:
When did you start experimenting with the wood carvings and when did you make the first board?
The day I made my first board was also the day I started experimenting. It was one of those projects where everything felt perfect on the first try. It was my first "tattoo".
It was 2011 and I was back in California for Christmas from Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma and I had broken my board and had a few other ones taken by security guards and didn’t want to buy another one. So I thought I would make one for myself. After I took the board out of the sandblasting cabinet and painted it, I was excited because I knew I had something special. I went back to school and everyone who saw it freaked out. That’s when I knew it was time to come back to California.
What was your reaction when the business started growing so quickly after the Instagram feature?
I am very grateful to Instagram and the platform they have created for people to interact with artists, builders and skaters. Instagram saw the @STRGHT account photos and liked our message and wanted to share what we were building. The Instagram feature connected me with new fans and artists from all over the world. It has provided a great opportunity to build relationships with our customers. The support has been overwhelming. I will never forget the that day, because the momentum has not stopped.
Can you add a few more names of retailers that you are selling too besides Hobie?
We are selling in over forty retailers throughout California, Florida, Hawaii, Texas, Canada, The Bahamas, South Korea and Peru. Our most recent retailer addition is Urban Outfitters.
Are you looking at expanding your distribution even further or are you going to stay around the 40-50 retail doors mark for a while?
We are expanding every day and lucky to make a quality product that you can buy in-store or online. The most recent international distribution partnership is in South Korea but we also want to focus selling in all states.
Any major lessons you’ve learned in launching your own business since you got started?
The biggest lesson I have learned is to listen to our customers. They are passionate and we pride ourselves on building a successful brand they can trust. My team, suppliers and family are wise and experienced so they keep me well informed and grounded. They really deserve all the credit for helping establish STRGHT and developing groundbreaking art you can skate on every day.